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Inside the Conservative Brain: Why Tea Partiers Are Desperately Afraid

To understand how Tea Partiers view the world, you have to know how they see themselves.

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As America is torn apart by extremists, maybe a deep dive into our individual and collective psychology is a good way to start figuring out what’s happening to us.

The problem, as it turns out, may be the difference in the way people view individuals and collectives; whether you’ve got a “me” or a “we” focus; and how big those categories happen to be.

john a. powell (his name is spelled without capitals) leads the UC Berkeley Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society and is considered a leading thinker on race and ethnicity. He spoke Wednesday evening in Manhattan at the Union Theological Seminary as part of a joint series on Economics & Theology put on by UTS and the Institute of New Economic Thinking. INET’s executive director Rob Johnson, along with UTS president Serene Jones and Rachel Godsil of the American Values Institute, joined powell in a lively panel focused on how issues of race and belonging inform what’s happening in America today.

powell thinks a lot about meaning and being — what philosophers call ontology. He pays attention to the multiple levels at which humans exist and our struggle to make meaning of our lives, both as individuals and as groups. Along with Godsil, he studies how biases operate in our unconscious, with profound consequences for how we react to the world and each other.

The Tea Party is a fascinating case study for how these questions and ideas play out. Its members are bonded in anxiety and terror — a very powerful glue — over what America is becoming: something other than the “real America” they wish to belong to. Their America is white, Protestant and Anglo-Saxon (it’s no accident that the Right’s leading think tank is called the Heritage Foundation).

powell notes that while Tea Party members will tolerate a bit of diversity — the occasional Catholic or Jew — they primarily wish to protect the distinctiveness of their chosen group in the past, present and future. For them, someone like Obama represents the ultimate threat to maintaining this distinctiveness, the thing that makes them feel special. With his black/Muslim/immigrant associations he becomes the “trifecta of Otherness” — an unholy trinity that must be resisted at all costs. The Tea Partier perceives the President as the incarnation of a malevolent force that will take from them and give to Others. He is both the incarnation and the welcoming committee for the Stranger who doesn’t belong in America.

As an illustration, powell looks at how Tea Partiers feel about Social Security, which is coming under vigorous attack just as default has been avoided. When asked individually, powell finds that the Tea Partier likes the program a lot. But she only likes it for her own group — for people who have, in her view, “worked for it.” She doesn’t want the Others to have it because she doesn’t want to be connected to “Them.” “They” don’t work the way she does. “They” don’t care about America as she does. “They” don’t belong in America. This divide between the small group and the larger community can be leveraged by politicians who wish to sway them.

Because the government wants to extend Social Security to the Other, the government itself becomes the Big Other — an alien entity. If only “They" could be excluded from this otherwise excellent deal — as blacks and many women were excluded from Roosevelt’s original New Deal — then Social Security would have stronger support from the right.

powell is quick to point out that thinking this way doesn’t make Tea Partiers evil. Tea Party men, in particular, are upset about white male wages that have stagnated since 1973, which is reason enough for complaint. But powell notes that from a material point of view, most Tea Partiers are doing just fine, so it must be something other than just economics that bothers them. They are reflecting a deep anxiety about a changing world that they fear will soon be dominated by a non-white, non-Christian country. They are probably right about that. They fear America will soon be dominated by brown people with unfamiliar religious views. They are probably right about that, too.